IMMUNOPOLITICS OF NATURE: HOW THE FEAR OF UNDERGOING TRANSFORMATION AND THE QUEST FOR SIMPLE ANSWERS CAN CHANGE PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES TOWARDS ENVIRONMENT
Pulp and paper mill: filtered or resilient?
In the summer of 2021, residents of the suburbs close to the Perm Pulp and Paper Company (PPM) began to complain about a suffocating odour , pollution of the Chusovaya River, and the death of fish — obvious signs of a disaster. Residents also drew a link between the plant’s operations and an increase in cancer cases. Some of the interviewees for Riza Khasanov's report, covering the problem in Novaya Gazeta, shared that they had been dealing with the smell, pollution of the river, and the deterioration of their health for over the past 10 or even 30 years. Riza, however, notes that many of his respondents wanted to get the water and air qualities back to the former desirable states of 2015-2017 when, as they described the quality of air and the water in their river as "close to ideal". According to them, the deterioration is caused by the increased levels of cardboard production at the PPM.
The PPM sees itself as an important link in the development of a circular economy. Over the course of 24 hours, the plant processes 600 tons of waste paper into "high-quality and environmentally friendly packaging." In the summer of 2022, the company announced the installation of new treatment facilities where the cycle of recycling has been separated from the environment.
Questions such as "Is a plant an element of a regenerative (cyclical) economy?" and " Was cardboard production sustainable in 2015?" seem to contain a fair amount of sarcasm, nevertheless there is no reason to stop asking them.
Many scientists specialising in measuring resilience, talk about the need to base metrics on the values of the whole society or the individual local communities that are affected by the plant’s decisions. So, the quality of the environment was stable until 2017. Then something happened that made life unbearable. However installing new filters and barriers can once again stabilise the situation.
If harm is the emergence of something new, then anything new is usually seen as a threat. Only new barriers can save us from disaster . This logic gives rise to conspiracy theories, but its influence is much wider. It makes, what social theorists call "immunopolitics", creating centres of power out of people's fear of infection, pollution, or any contact with things that can "transform" them (1). This logic is more common than conservative political preferences or a simple caution. It has the capacity to be reproduced in the environmental discourse, reducing or distorting the results of environmental awareness and hindering transition to a "green" economy.
Conspiracies, suspicions, and crossing of borders
The book "Mysteries and Conspiracies" by the famous French sociologist Luc Boltanski, was translated into Russian just in time, in 2019 (2). It was useful for describing the COVID conspiracy theories, as well as for analysing the official narrative of biological threat, that was formed in 2022.
Boltansky writes about the birth of the spy novel genre at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the development of global capitalism altered people's understanding of national borders. Influenced by these ideas, Dreyfus, a French army officer, could easily be bribed by the "foreign forces" and turned into a German spy.
A stable world of nation-states vested with autonomy was collapsing under the influence of growing world trade, and international financial and industrial players. Both, representatives of the state and private individuals, were perceived as those who may already be deprived of autonomy, but who continue to keep up appearances of independent behaviour. A spy builds invisible and vicious networks of relationships, and weaves a web of intrigue. In order to capture their victims or engage potential allies, they must be an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. In this sense, suspicions of contagious influence from the outside reproduced "people’s epidemiology" already familiar to the citizens of Europe. For the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, cholera came from China or Central Asia, and for the inhabitants of Central Europe —from Russia. But the best example of an all-penetrating threat of agents of foreign influence is the names given to syphilis. For Germans, it was a French disease, for the inhabitants of Moscovia — a Polish disease.
Today's official Russian biosecurity discourse also demonstrates a threat of infiltration. Mosquitoes and migratory birds carrying pathogenic microorganisms easily cross frontlines and state borders. The threats are invisible and constructed by unfamiliar "foreign forces''. The security discourse implicitly appeals to COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and sometimes involves the "parallel import" of foreign conspiracy products. The story about combat mosquitoes fabricated in Ukrainian laboratories resembles the common narrative in the Western Hemisphere (Brazil and the USA) stating that genetically modified mosquitoes are carriers of Zica virus (3).
Similar to spy networks, the threat is simultaneously both distant and close. It is constructed by strangers in laboratories located "somewhere", but at the same time it is all-pervasive. Anyone can be a victim. Another feature of constructing this threat is that life itself is at risk: not personal data, not finances, and not intellectual property. The main hero of Boltanski's spy novel was interested in learning something valuable, his goal is rather akin to a computer virus. Now the public discourse on information security has a supportive role, complementing the discourse on biological threats.
Nature transformed by a "foreign culture" becomes a danger for "human nature". Infected migratory birds cross borders, dangerous mosquitoes invade our homes, and viruses affect human cells. They are capable of infecting, polluting, and reformatting. Since open resistance to the production of these threats is difficult, what is left is the suspicion of individual parts of the biosphere in their foreignness and their ability to work for the enemy.
The main goal of any immunopolitics is re-establishing the borders for the sake of preserving an intact and uncontaminated essence of an individual or a group. In this sense, nature conservation can also be immunopolitical. Following this logic, PPM can easily fit into the ecosystem and become sustainable since there is a substantial amount of filters and barriers between the internal and external circulation of water. Treatment technologies and their ecological relevance, that are hard to oppose, can easily give rise to isolationist metaphors and ways of relating to the world around us.
The fear of local nature being polluted was a basis for "green" politics in many totalitarian states. Nazi efforts to establish protected areas and develop a detailed set of laws and regulations for hunting were accompanied by a special rhetoric around the emerging network of autobahns (4). Their construction introduced people to labour and pulled them out of unemployment, while the highways themselves made "unique natural places" accessible to the public. People admiring nature in a strictly established place were worthy of praise. But at the same time, they were obliged to honour the boundaries of the hunting grounds, otherwise risking becoming an object of suspicion.
To some extent in relation to nature, the modern system of suspicion inverts as well as complements this type of relationship between humans and nature. Both nature and humans can be a danger to one another. As long as their relationship is built according to specific rules, neither is harmed nor threatened by the other. Humans do not cross the boundaries of the conservation zone, and nature observes interspecies boundaries as if they were similar to administrative ones.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas demonstrates how the concept of pollution can develop in any particular community. Someone crosses the established boundaries of a community, this person is either in between groups or outside of them, thereby becoming a source of danger that can potentially pollute the rest of the community. Both "unwanted people" and "genetically modified organisms" do not fit into the social hierarchies or classification systems of natural objects. They have not gone through the rite of naming, and therefore do not fit into conservative projects of categorising authenticity, such as "giving objects a proper name".
Non-authentic species, those transformed, or existing outside classifications are a source of threat. They are difficult to recognise; thus capable of penetrating anywhere. A person begins to look at many natural objects as potential agents of foreign forces. Immunopolitical order with its promise to keep "true human nature" intact transforms both the relationship between humans and others, as well as with people themselves as a form of life through a regime of constant anxiety and suspicion.
Blindness and simplified "environmental economics"
Expansion requires a collision with the new. And the new, being outside of the usual order of society or nature, is a threat. In order to quickly restore the harmony of existing hierarchies one can isolate oneself from this “new” to stop its infiltration, or, by ignoring the threatening novelty, position it in the hierarchy, most likely on a lower level. Usually both of these strategies are implemented at the same time. Both of them require the formation of blind spots, a simplification of cause-and-effect relationships, and a primitivization of the new phenomena. Neil Ahuja, professor of critical studies in California, gives several examples of the political regulation of interspecies relations during expansion, in his book "Bioinsecurities" on biosecurity threats (5). These stories can serve as an illustration of how blindness is combined with an immunopolitical desire to isolate itself from the source of danger.
The problem is that this fence is often constructed at the expense of the lives of human and non-human Others. At the same time, it is not necessarily about creating a lifeless zone of exclusion. In the 1950s, a polio campaign was launched in the United States. The polio vaccine was made from the cells taken from the kidneys of the rhesus monkey. Tens of thousands of monkeys were brought in from India and Central Africa in order to "build a national immune system". Over the next decade, exports began to falter, and the rhesus monkeys became part of the public health system — and breeding began within the US. As early as the beginning of the 21st century, the information that in addition to antibodies for the polio virus, such vaccines also carried another potentially carcinogenic virus, started to circulate in the media. The immunopolitical barrier came into light only when it became a source of possible risks. Hundreds of thousands of slaughtered monkeys appeared out of the blind zone, not due to their sufferings, but due to a new danger. Prior to this, the fate of monkeys in a rigid interspecies hierarchy only meant something to a small group of animal rights activists.
It is not just the lives of people and non-humans that can end up in blind spots. Casual relationships are also at risk — in how these can influence one another. During the US control of the Panama Canal Zone, the amount of gonorrhoea and syphilis cases grew among both the soldiers and the local population. Nowadays most researchers agree that the main reason for this was the occupation itself. However, in 1946-1947, prostitution was considered to be the main threat to the army contingent in the Canal Zone, leading to the criminalisation of prostitution and, as a result, the arrests of many local residents. However, the main reason for the "immunopolitical danger" turned out to be in a blind zone. Namely, the arrival of the military and their sexual behaviour had affected the epidemiological situation, but this was obscured by marginalising the appointment of the culprits.
Blindness to the cause-and-effect relationship can be observed not only in cases of individual administrative decisions, but also in the general economic logic of the development of natural resources. The general simplification of economic concepts, that was characteristic of (proto)fascist regimes, makes it difficult to access a systemic perspective on the perception of nature. Paradoxically, these regimes combine the ideal of native nature conservation with a programme for using foreign nature which is “not as valuable”. In the 1930s-1940s, the Metaxas regime in Greece included a "mobilisation of land resources" for the melioration of land and various infrastructure projects. On the other hand, the value of land itself was recognised as the primary asset which reflected the thoughts of French physiocratic economists of the 18th century (6).
Illustrated albums printed in Portugal in the 1920s-1930s, showing the wealth of colonies and their development, depicted nature in a pre-Linnaean manner. The diversity of the Mozambique fauna was shown through the depiction of various animal figures surrounding a white-skinned hunter in a colonial costume. Orderly nature seemed to offer itself for extractive relationships. It was not the birds and animals that were being extracted, and not even their skins, meat, and feathers, but wealth itself, reflected in the trade balance of Portugal as a metropolis. The land that was turned into cotton fields was not of value at all, in this particular case —in the end, one could remain blind to it. Salazar, who had ruled Portugal since 1933, suggested shaping the attitudes towards colonies in a mercantilist way (7). The most important thing was not the melioration of land and cultivation of cotton, and not even the manufacturing of fabrics, but the volume of textile product exports. This extraction of wealth became possible due to the victory of "civilization" over tropical diseases such as trypanosomiasis. The subsequent conservation efforts of the colonial administrations largely contributed to land zoning, excluding the local population as a carrier of the still existing disease and a source of cheap labour.
All of the cases discussed above — the death of the rhesus monkeys, the arrests of women, the physiocracy of Metaxas, and Salazar's mercantilism — are all very different phenomena. Each is connected to the construction of dangers, barriers to stop them, and blind spots that prevent the autonomous reassembly of objects posing a threat. Examples from history help us discern features of today's forms of immunopolitics. Recruited by "forces from the outside", natural objects do not just constitute a source of fear of pollution. They cross borders not as spies but as saboteurs, waking dreams of scorched exclusion zones and thick walls. This fear makes extractive use of nature less visible and therefore more acceptable. In a situation like this, ecological disaster will more likely be a reminder about the need for new barriers and filters rather than regeneration or sustainability.
"Conservation" narratives and fear of transformation
If the stability of the surrounding world is strong , then our own actions cannot lead to changes that will threaten us personally. The new dangers, surrounding the Panama Canal, were bound to flourish in the disordered slums, but not in orderly barracks. Examples of how nature is managed within the framework of expansion only demonstrates the most absurd logic of dealing with new threats, blind spots, and fence building. But the perception of everything new as a threat, is not limited to colonial politics.
Conspiracy theories are all over the world —they exist in societies with various value systems. Their influence on individual and collective behaviour differs. Their influence on decision-making and their support for certain choices are likely determined by the general political climate. Fear of something new and unknown is quite understandable. But not all such fears translate into the fear of being transformed or of losing one's essence.
With the start of the COVID-19 era in early 2020, academic journals in the field of social sciences and humanities published numerous articles on the phenomenon. The most popular explanations suggested that conspiracy theorists had certain cognitive features or lacked an understanding of the responsibility in spreading false or dubious beliefs. Sociologists usually study the dynamics of knowledge-sharing in small groups — formation of the so-called "information bubbles" in social media.
Articles containing this line of reasoning notably contribute to modern philosophy, anthropology, and cognitive science, but "essential" explanations (through vices or psychological features) can easily be used to produce "dangerous allies" out of conspiracy theorists. This partly occurred during the coronavirus pandemic with regards to those who rejected vaccination. A tension arose between two types of immunopolitics —those based on the fear of contracting a virus, and those built on the fear of being transformed through a vaccine that influences one's genetic code. If the former did not distinguish types of vulnerability for the people who were afraid of the vaccination, all relationships with others were covered in a blind zone for the latter. Both the risk of becoming a source of infection, and the responsibility for disseminating information meant nothing compared to the danger of losing the "identity and integrity" of one’s organism, as if separate from the biosphere on the whole.
Computer models of communication in the information bubbles allowed the creation of interesting prognoses, although they largely ignore the content of conspiracy theories that can be interpreted as a symptom of "social pathology". Why do the majority of Russians believe in the danger of genetically modified food and the existence of a group of people rewriting Russian history, while almost half of Americans think that President Kennedy's assassination was the work of the Secret Service?
The content of conspiracy theories circulates in society due to common narratives deeply embedded in the culture (8). These narratives are vested with new, concrete meaning that stem from the interpretation of technical and social innovations as threats. People start seeing the Large Hadron Collider as a Pandora's box because most members of society are familiar with the mythology. The general logic of events that gives an outlet to the threat of chaos is applicable to most innovations. This logic serves as a sieve filtering scientists' arguments and public assurances. That is, the basic narratives about the dangers of the new are not only tools for discussing risks, but the building blocks which form the framework of the discussion.
Exploring the perception of new technologies that can be used as part of the transition to a green economy, scientists from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Australia highlighted five narratives (9). Initially, these narratives were discussed in relation to green nanotechnologies, but they can also be applied to nature-like technologies in a broader sense, as well as to geoengineering projects (10). Narratives can reinforce each other when discussing risks, and also form the general framework for such a discussion.
1. Be careful what you wish for – one of the oldest narratives in Western thought. It focuses on the difference between the desired result or state and a final outcome. "Surely, progress and new technologies are a wonderful thing, but it is not a given that they benefit their users, humanity, or the planet."
2. Pandora’s Box– "Even though technologies were not created with evil intentions, substantial interventions particularly in endangered nature will lead to harmful consequences ."
3. Messing with nature – "Nature has its own sacred internal laws and qualities that are inaccessible to us. These natural orders must be respected. A person who transgresses them is threatened with revenge from nature."
4. The “kept in the dark narrative” – "Once we begin technological transformation, we face the changes we have no power over."
5. The rich get richer – "Technology is developed by those with resources. The use of technological advances will only widen the gap between these people and the others.”
It is obvious that there is nothing specifically related to conspiracy theories in these narratives. Moreover, they may well be fundamental for both ecological and bioethical discourses. They cover the conservation of nature, but not necessarily in a conservative sense. The last two narratives, expressing alienation and a sense of powerlessness in the face of ongoing changes, fit perfectly into critical "left" discourses.
According to the authors of the study, all these narratives are familiar to the vast majority of people brought up in Europe, as well as North and South America. But directly, none of them directly has anything to do with the fear of being transformed, losing one's essence due to the use of new technologies. Naturally, each of the narratives presented above touches on this fear to some extent. But even the "corruption of nature" refers, instead, to the mythological stories about hubris —human pride and arrogance that is punished by the Gods. In this case, if we are talking about pollution, it comes through falling out of the hierarchy of gods and people. At the same time, those who fell out, sought to be like gods. The fighting mosquito and its creators are toxic and dangerous for a different reason. Conspiracies are different: here, nature is able to cross the sacred boundaries of the human world, but not vice versa.
However, we are not talking about the usual threats of infectious disease. The fear of the new coronavirus —even though it was recognized to be man-made — turned out to be the lesser of the two evils compared to the fear of technologically modified viruses in the vaccine. The human hubris of "forces from the outside dreaming of world domination" is almost indistinguishable against the backdrop of arrogance of natural objects crossing borders, penetrating our homes, bodies, organs, and cells.
Human intrusion in nature seems to be easily fixable due to the existence of established barriers. But so far there are no ways to protect oneself against the invasion of "recruited nature." Since it is impossible to target the threat, it is necessary to limit our interactions with it —both physical and mental. The fear of transformation, constituting the basis of existence, leads to transformation by combining partial blindness with the desire to isolate.
In conclusion, I will provide a general summary, while fully realising that immunopolitical narrative about " recruited nature" still needs to be explored. However the significance of everything written above should be clarified for the sake of environmental awareness.
1. One's individual stability or immutability is often calculated on a value scale (i.e., desirable) while general "global" stability is determined in a descriptive sense (i.e., natural). That is, relations within the systems of society and nature cannot change without intentional will, and the purpose of this will is to change, transform, and pollute. In general, this constitutes the basis for many conspiracy theories and other forms of non-reflexive denial of scientific consensus (denialism, including denial of climate change, threats to biodiversity, etc.).
2. Desire for stability, accumulated in collective social agents, is capable of producing other "forms of life" — transforming the practices of cognition, making individuals, groups or institutions fundamentally blind and immune to certain types of phenomena (from an individual’s suffering due to climate change). That is, contradictorily, the desire for stability for oneself and the belief in external stability, leads to transformations.
3. The topos (metaphor) of preserving biodiversity or natural ecosystems —without anyone's explicit will—can reinforce the logic of stabilisation and thus lead to the inability to distinguish environmental threats or simply new processes, in the existing relationships between nature and society.
(1) Esposito R. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Wiley, 2011
(2) Boltanski L. Énigmes et complots: Une enquête à propos d'enquêtes. Translated by Zakharevich, A. St.Peterburg, EUSP Press; 2019.
(3) Klofstad, C.A., Uscinski, J.E., Connolly, J.M. et al.: What drives people to believe in Zika conspiracy theories?. Palgrave Commun 5, 36 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-019-0243-8
(4) Brüggemeier FJ, Cioc M, Zeller T, editors: How green were the Nazis?: nature, environment, and nation in the Third Reich. Ohio University Press; 2005.
(5) Ahuja N. Bioinsecurities: Disease interventions, empire, and the government of species. Duke University Press; 2016
(6) Douros D, Angelis-Dimakis D.: Perceptions and Uses of the Land: Agrarian Rhetoric and Agricultural Policy in Greece under Metaxas’ Regime (1936-1941). Perspectivas-Journal of Political Science; 2021 Dec 17; 25:57-70.
(7) Guimarães P.: Violence, Science, and Cotton in Colonial-Fascist Mozambique (1934-1974). Perspectivas-Journal of Political Science; 2021 Dec 17; 25:89-108.
(8) Dupuy JP: The narratology of lay ethics. Nanoethics; 2010 Aug;4(2):153-70.
(9) Macnaghten P, Davies SR, Kearnes M. Understanding public responses to emerging technologies: a narrative approach. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning; 2019 Sep 3;21(5):504-18.
(10) Aarts N, Bovenberg R, Dogterom M, van Est R, Gerritsen J, Macnaghten P, Poolman B, Robaey Z, Rasmussen S, Ruivenkamp G, Thole E. Society and synthetic cells: A position paper by the Future Panel on Synthetic Life. https://www.rathenau.nl/en/democratic-information-society/society-and-synthetic-cells